We all get to see events through the lens of our own obsessions but bloggers are particularly blessed in that they can share their obsessions with their fellow netizens. Take the case of Representative Foley and the inappropriate e-mails and instant messages he sent to a 16 year old House of Representatives page. My interest is in the – hold your breath – media aspects of the incident. That’s right, I’m going to skip right over all the good stuff and talk about McLuhan’s idea that we remain unconscious of the potential of new media long after they come into general usage and go on thinking they follow the rules of their predecessors long after we should know better.
What do we have here in media terms? Love/lust letters on the Internet. As McLuhan predicts the content of new media are at first just the content of older media. Old wine in new bottles. What we miss according to Mcluhan is that we see only the wine and miss that the new bottles are not the same as the old bottles. Thus Gutenberg printed the Bible – the most in demand book at the time which had previously been produced by hand. He didn’t think of printing magazines and newspapers as his successors did- much less get it that novels might be a good seller. We think the content is the whole story and miss that the new medium works by different rules and has different potentials than its precursors.
Rep Foley’s e-mails have been described as over friendly, the instant messages as sexually explicit – just like heaps of love/lust letters that have gotten previous generations in trouble. I’m not denying that there is a clear case of sexual misbehavior and misuse of power here. That is a content issue; I’m focusing on the form here. What I am saying is that this is yet another case of someone thinking that their behavior on the Internet is transitory like private conversations – or ‘what happens in Las Vegas’. The nature of the Internet is that it remembers. Keeps copies, caches copies, backs up copies. What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet, but not like Las Vegas – it stays forever and can come back to bite you. Rep Foley just didn’t get this aspect of the medium as future generations undoubtedly will. It feels anonymous and/or private when it is not. Future public figures will be more careful of what they say on the Internet as a matter of course and will back quickly away from any statement that could be used against them – just the way they do now when microphones are pointing at them. I don’t think that Rep Foley would have expressed his sentiments so freely in a signed letter because he understands the rules of signed love/lust letters. Yet old fashioned love/lust letters are much harder to find than e-mails and IMs. It occurs to me that he might well have been cautious enough not to say the things he did on the phone – again because we are all aware that a phone might be tapped. Perhaps he didn’t realize was that he would have actually been safer from discovery chatting up his pages on the phone.